A Taste of Kenya

Well, we're back.

The 9 days we spent in Kenya can be summed up in one word: Amazing.

The people we met, the landscape and animals we saw, the contrast to our everyday lives... it was a trip that summoned all senses and produced a range of emotions and thoughts (e.g. don't take clean drinking water for granted.)

What follows is a bulleted synopsis of our trip filled with miscellaneous observations and trivia, with links to some pictures as well. I suppose a more flowing narrative might be in order, but the mountain of laundry taking over the hallway begs to differ.

October 17-18
- Overnight flight from Heathrow to Nairobi goes well. We all must have slept longer than we thought for the nearly 9 hour flight seemed to go by quickly.
- The location of the airport in Nairobi reminded Peggy and I, strangely enough, of Denver International: it's in the middle of nowhere, there's flat terrain all around and it's about a mile above sea level.
- The chance for any future similarities between Nairobi and Denver diminished rapidly as we left the airport and made our way to our hotel: there were heavily armed guards at the airport exit, the pollution from cars was intense, and the driving habits were pretty chaotic (even by UK standards.) Peggy and I joked that we doubt that there are emissions test done on cars; but if there were, it would be to see who had the most CO spewing out the tailpipe.
- Another thing that became evident quickly were the sheer numbers of people walking in the rural/suburban band of the city. You would see people walk-commuting everywhere... along the busy highway, coming through vacant lots to get to the path along the highway, hundreds of meters away heading somewhere. (We observed later in the week, when we were solidly in the rural areas, the same held true: there may have been fewer people, but you could still see plenty of people traveling on foot.)
- Our hotel in Nairobi was OK. There wasn't much to do in the immediate vicinity, so we hung out by the pool most of the afternoon. Which was fine by us, since we had a 7 AM departure the next day (or 5 AM GMT.)
- Not only was there not much to do, we learned in the welcoming remarks at the hotel that it wasn't always a great idea to go strolling around any part Nairobi willy-nilly. If we did go out, we were advised to removed all jewelry, not take cameras or purses, and take only the minimum amount of cash. That said, we did take a short walk around the hotel, just to stretch our legs and visit a couple of stores.
- The lunch we had at the hotel quickly reminded us not to get "Kenyan shilling sticker shock" when we buy something. It cost us 4,250 Kenyan Shillings, or about $50.

October 19
- We headed south in the morning, with the destination being about 4 hours away at lodge near Amboseli National Park.
- Within the first 45 minutes of leaving the hotel, we saw our first wildlife... some giraffes. A short while later, we spotted some ostriches, too.
- A railroad line paralleled the road most of the way. It stretches from Mombasa, Kenya to Uganda. During its construction at the turn of the 20th century, a lot of Indian slaves were killed by lions.
- During the drive, we stopped for a nature break at a curio shop. It was here we learned, rather quickly I might add, that" haggle-ese" was the third language of Kenya, with the other two being English and Swahili. And we weren't even interested in buying anything! (i.e. the hawkers are pretty relentless.)
- In the parking lot of this curio shop, the hawker that assigned himself to us came up, made some friendly chatter, and then asked if we had any pens or magazines. He wanted them for his daughter at the school across the street. I obliged and gave him my copy of the less-than-kid-friendly "The Economist." He seemed appreciative nonetheless.
- Our lodge for the next 2 nights was the Amboseli Sopa, and its close to Africa's highest peak Mount Kilimanjaro (19,298 ft.) And though it is situated about 10 miles outside the park, has its own little slice of wildlife... vervet monkeys were all over the place, and banded mongoose were also readily seen.
- The lodge is pretty remote. Consider: all electricity is provided by generators, so there are limited times when guests can charge their various batteries or take a hot shower.
- In regards to those monkeys, apparently a row had broken out between two of them near our room, and before we knew it we had monkeys running all over our patio and nearly into our room. All within an arm's reach.
- In the afternoon, we had our first game drive, and so I'll let the pictures and their captions provide the words for that. The only thing I will mention (tangentially) is that the aforementioned 10 miles between the lodge and park was 10 miles of teeth-chattering, kidney-damaging "washboard" dirt road. An aside: Toyota Land Cruisers are near bomb-proof.
- At night, warriors of the local Masai tribe performed some ritual dances and songs, and exhibited their (vertical) jumping competition, which is used as part of a courting ritual.
- On the grounds of this lodge is a house that Ernest Hemingway built. It's currently in use as a bar and viewing platform.

October 20
- We were given the opportunity of visiting the local Masai village this morning, and took it. And are SO glad we did. On the 15 minute walk to their village, I was able to spend a good bit of time talking to the one Masai gentleman, the chief's son. He was very welcoming and forthcoming out Masai life, culture and traditions. And quite inquisitive about where we were from. Thankfully, I had a pictures of our home area on my camera's memory card and could show him a snow-capped picture of the mountains behind Boulder. He was also quite fond of using our point and shoot camera... he took most of the pictures you'll see of our time amongst the village members.
- In this particular village, we participated in one of their dances and prayers, were told about their herbal medicines, and visited a home and their nursery school. We learned that the men take care of the livestock, and the women take care of the home (including building it) and provide water for it, which for this village meant a 9-mile roundtrip trek.
- Some quick tidbits about the Masai (for a more complete picture, I'd encourage you to follow the link above): they're polygamous; men first marry around age 20, and women around age 17; as the brides come from a different village, a marriage is arranged between the two fathers and involves a "bride price" (opposite of a dowry) of usually between 10-20 cattle; they're nomadic, moving as needed to keep their livestock of cattle, sheep, goats and donkeys well fed; their diet consists largely of meat, milk and blood, but no fruits or vegetables; they don't hunt for their food, relying on their own livestock for sustenance.
- After visiting the Masai village, we went to the park for late mornings and afternoon game drives and saw one or some of the following: Thomson's gazelles and Grant's gazelles, elephants, giraffes, baboons, hippos, zebras, wildebeests, cape buffalo, waterbuck, hyenas, elands, herons, lions, jackals and ostriches, to name a few.
- Some of the animal trivia we learned:
  • you'll often see zebras and wildebeests migrating and milling about together, for the latter rely on the formers ability to locate water.
  • giraffes have special valves in their neck to control blood flow to the brain while it is bent over drinking.
  • elephants often bury a dead herd member under leaves, dirt and branches, and will not return for several years to the area where the member died.

October 21
- Lots of driving today... 4 hours back to Nairobi to have lunch at the Carnivore restaurant (where the tag line might as well be "if it had a mother, we put it on a grill"), and then 2.5 hours along the Rift Valley to our lodge at Lake Naivasha, which lies northeast of Nairobi.
- The Carnivore restaurant is a Nairobi landmark, known for grilling up some (very) meaty fare. (Follow the link in the "Miscellaneous" section at the bottom of this post to see a picture of the menu du jour.) Of the things I tried: my favorite was ostrich (asked for seconds!), my least favorite was crocodile, and yes, I did try the last one listed in the left column above the Exotic Meats section.
- There were no game drives today, but that didn't mean we didn't see any animals. While strolling the grounds of the Naivasha Sopa lodge, we saw dik dik, colobus monkeys, giraffes, and waterbuck. Another animal related tidbit regarding this lodge is that guests are encouraged to use "security" personnel while walking to and from dinner in the main lodge, as hippos are known to walk around the grounds at night.

October 22
- The first excursion today was to Lake Nakuru, about 1.5 hours away and know for its flamingos. The salty waters promote algae growth, which attracts the flamingos, sometimes as many as 1.5 million of them.
- The lake area is also know for its black and white rhinos. One way to tell the difference between a black and white rhino is to look at the mouth area: if it's flat/square, you're looking at a white rhino; if it's more pointed, a black rhino. (Despite the "color" adjective, these rhinos are essentially the same color. A write-up on how these animals got their names can be found here.) But let's say you a rhino and its baby are walking away from you and you can't see their faces, there is still away to discern which variety of rhino you are looking at: if the baby is walking in front of its mother, you're looking at white rhinos; if the baby is walking behind the mother, their black rhinos.
- Animal trivia from this excursion: male lions eat up to (approx.) 75 pounds of meat per day; rhinos have a 17 month gestation period.
- After touring the Lake Nakuru area, it was back to our lodge where we took a 1.5 hour boat tour of Lake Naivasha, know for it's hippo population (estimated at 2,000.) Unfortunately, the weather turned on us a little bit as it became quite windy with passing rain, and these conditions had the hippos at the surface for just short periods before submerging again. I was able to get some so-so pix, though.
- Also on this lake were pelicans and kingfishers.

October 23
- This morning we traveled to our last lodge of the trip, the Mara Sopa lodge which abuts the Masai Mara National Preserve. A "feature" of the drive there were the roads for the last 2 hours: for one of the hours, it was on a potholed-beyond-belief stretch that had us ranging from road shoulder to road shoulder just to get passed some real tire swallowers, and the final hour to the lodge was on a washboarded dirt road that made our time getting into the Amboseli park seem like a blink of an eye.
- As on other lodge-to-lodge trips, we did stop by a curio shop to use the restrooms and browse their wares. We've noticed some beautiful carved ebony pieces at prior ones, and because it was near the end of the trip and we wouldn't have to lug them around a lot, we decided to try our hand at haggle-ese. Peggy wanted some ebony bookends, I found an ebony sculpture of a lion that I liked, and Chloe found a small malachite sculpture of an elephant. The combined initial offer from the hawkers for these 3 items totaled 24,000 Kenyan shillings; we got them 10,000.
- The Mara Sopa lodge was also frequented by vervet monkeys... while taking a quick rest poolside, I had one sitting 4 feet away from me, and observed them strolling over to the pool to get some water.
- We did a game drive in the Masai Mara after lunch and were absolutely blown away – by the animals, by the scenery, and by one particular incident, which I'll "bullet" at the end of this day's write-up. For one reason or another, I started taking better notes at this park about what we saw and what our driver-guide told us, and so following are some trivia bits and observances.
  • The cheetah is the only cat that can't retract its claws. (This has led some to believe, including our driver-guide, apparently, that it is a member of the dog family.) It hunts only in the day, unlike the leopard which hunts at night.
  • A cape buffalo can weigh up to 2,000 pounds and have very poor eyesight.
  • We can only guess that it's due to the frequency with which people visit the park, but we were amazed about how nonplussed the lions were both here and at other parks when there were humans and vehicles partially surrounding them.
  • Approximately 1 million wildebeest migrate to this park from the Serengeti in Tanzania, and a lot give birth in Kenya – there are about 1.5 million migrating back. A newborn wildebeest doesn't waste time getting ready for survival mode: 10 minutes after it is born it is standing, 10 minutes later it is walking, and 10 minutes later it can run at its top speed. (You may have seen video clips of "The Great Migration" on nature shows, where wildebeest attempt to safely cross a swiftly moving river laced with crocodiles. If so, what you saw was them going to/from Masai Mara.)
  • The secretary bird got its name from the feathers protruding out from its head, as they are said to resemble the quill pens that (human) secretaries from days of yore used to store behind their ears.
  • We came upon one male lion resting who quite apparently got into a serious scrape with another animal as there were several nice sized gashes on his face and limbs.
  • Females lions are known for nursing other females' cubs, and can nurse 10 at a time.
  • The Masai people use the pods from the sausage tree to make beer.
- The "blown away" incident referenced above took place right as we were heading back to the lodge. We were parked, along with a couple other vehicles, alongside 4 lions resting in the grass, the nearest of which was about 30 feet away from our open-window, open-top vehicle. Something caught the attention of the one lion, as it got up and walked between the vehicles and sat down on the other, sensing the air and looking around. A few short moments later, the other 3 decided to join it and the one of these 3 decided to take a path directly alongside our Toyota. How "alongside"? Had I put my hand out the open window, I could have pet it on top of its head. Probably the best animal experience of the trip right there.

October 24
- Early morning game drive today in hopes of seeing some activity from our quasi-nocturnal friend the leopard, the only one of the Big 5 we had yet to see. How early? Up and on the road by 6:15 AM.
- We came across some more lions, of which there are approximately 750 in the park, 2 cheetahs, a tawny eagle feasting on a dead wildebeest, a jackal waiting to feast on said wildebeest, a bohor reedbuck (an animal I never heard of before), zebras, wildebeests, various gazelles, topi antelope, kongoni (another "new one" for me), ostriches, warthogs and cape buffaloes. But, alas, no leopard. So back to the lodge we went for breakfast and a several hour rest before heading out again in the afternoon.
- In the afternoon game drive, the quest for the elusive leopard continued, and our driver-guide was working the CB radio hard with other drivers seeing if the spotted any. During our drive, we spotted a pride of 13 lions, 2 of which were brothers to the one we saw last night (the scarred-up one.) Our driver learned from other guides that these 3 lions are brothers, and the one challenged for dominance of the pride and lost, and subsequently got kicked out.
- Shortly after visiting this pride, the call came in that a leopard had been spotted. When asked where it was, our driver said, "Far." He wasn't kidding: it took about an hour to get there.
- En route to the leopard, we saw some dikdik, and went through a large herd of cape buffalo, several of which had young calves by their side. At this point, with the park's closing in mind, our driver didn't really stop for us to observe animals we've already seen... he was in full-on leopard mode.
- After several "corrective turns" (necessary when directions to "the tree by the grassy area next to the marshy area" has several interpretations) we arrived to see a leopard lying in the grass. It eventually got up and began walking, and like the lions seemed absolutely unperturbed by the jostling of vehicles around it.
- Our driver told us some things about the leopard:
  • there are a good number of leopards in the park, but they are very elusive.
  • when found, they are usually resting up in a tree.
  • the spots on the leopard have a "rosette" look to them, whereas the spots on the cheetah are solid.
  • they are solitary by nature, have a black ring "necklace" on them, and can carry an animal twice its own weight up a tree to feast on it.
- After observing the leopard, it was time to make our way back to the entrance/exit to the park before it closed. Along the way, we saw a steppe eagle and a small heard of elephants.

October 25 and 26
- We headed back to Nairobi the morning of the 25th, enduring 2 hours of brutal road conditions again before reaching some smooth pavement, and saw a group of giraffes numbering 32 along the way.
- Shortly after leaving the lodge, the driver stopped at a local school. Peggy and I had some things we no longer needed and wanted to give it away. This wasn't the only thing, but somewhere in western Kenya is a kid wearing a Steelers baseball hat.
- We arrived in Nairobi around noon time, grabbed some lunch at a nearby restaurant, then read and napped poolside before an early dinner... we had a 6:30 AM departure for the airport the next morning.
- The morning of the 26th we woke up, grabbed a quick breakfast and headed to the airport, successfully closing what could have been the best family we've taken.

Miscellaneous tidbits, some items our driver-guide told us and final wrap-up
- Random pictures from our trip can be found here.
- This was our first time in the southern hemisphere. So I learned something about the Coriolis Effect and saw some new constellations (or rather, didn't see the Big Dipper; I honestly didn't know what I was looking at in the night sky.)
- Amboseli National Park is 151 sq.mi. in size and averages just 14 inches of rainfall per year. Its name is a derivative of some Masai words meaning "salty and dusty land", a description which makes sense if you see a satellite image of the area.
- Masai Mara means "spotted land," a description applied to the park when viewed from the air. It is 583 sq.mi. in size, and known for being home for all of the "Big 5" of Africa: rhinos, lions, leopards, buffaloes and elephants.
- There are 42 tribes in Kenya.
- We're not sure why, but 2 of the 3 lodges we stayed at were fond of playing Dolly Parton songs during dinner. One even threw in John Denver's "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" at one point.
- Most people in Nairobi live on less than $1/day.
- One more than one occasion Kenyan people said "Obama!" when they learned we were Americans.
- On several occasions, I saw where people used cut up motorcycle tires and some strapping to fashion a pair of sandals.
- Even though we felt by and large safe, there were little reminders that life in Nairobi wasn't always rosey. For instance, it appears as if many businesses, including the hotel we stayed at and the Carnivore restaurant, employed a fair amount of security personnel. At the Carnivore, there was a guard booth one had to go through to get there, and guards had at their disposal mirrors on wands that allows them to look at the underside of cars for bombs. And their were armed guards on the tarmac at the airport surrounding planes at their gates.
- Some of the "Western Wear" we saw on locals include a medical center shirt mentioning Steamboat Springs, an Air Products jacket on a driver, and a Steelers jersey on a man in a town we drove through.
- A donkey-pulled cart impeding traffic in the left lane of a very busy road was not a cause for anger or the beeping of one's car horn. It was simply a man with his cart and donkey going down the road.
- Apparently, car theft is a big problem in Kenya. Most cars had their license plate numbers etched into all mirrors and pieces of glass; some cars had the license plate numbers painted right on the doors.

* * * * *

Like I wrote at the beginning, this was an amazing trip. There are some experiences and images we hope to carry with us for the rest of our lives. Perhaps the ones that leave the greatest impression are those from our time amongst the Masai villagers. Here we were, Westerners in our new safari clothes, fancy camera equipment, and college degrees being taught a good lesson about being happy with what you have, and freely sharing it with those with whom you come in contact.

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